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Fanfare Magazine: 44:1 (09-10/2020) 
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Kings College

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Reviewer: James A. Altena

Stephen Cleobury died last November 22—fittingly, on the liturgical feast day of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music—after 35 years as the rightly revered conductor of the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge from 1982 to 2016. This recording of Bach’s towering masterpiece was made in April 2019 as his final musical testament. The result is a good but not great recording; the flaws lie not in Cleobury but in some of his soloists, though the latter overall are substantially superior to those in Cleobury’s previous recording, a live performance from 1994. My comments will briefly compare singers in the two versions.

Cleobury himself leads a totally assured account, briskly paced, nicely shaped, well balanced amongst his forces, and everywhere aptly expressive. It goes without saying that the choir and orchestra are likewise both excellent, albeit the former sounds “veddy” British in classic cathedral choir fashion (one will never confuse these choristers with German counterparts). Among the soloists, the strongest is James Gilchrist as the Evangelist; at age 53 he is just past his prime and occasionally sounds a bit bleaty, but is generally excellent, and much preferable to the overly fey Rogers Covey-Crump. Matthew Rose is a fine singer, but somewhat miscast as Jesus; his gruff timbre, ideal for an angry villain in a Handel oratorio, conveys neither the majesty of Christ’s divinity nor the humility of his humanity, though Rose lacks neither technique nor interpretive intention. However, much the same can be said of Michael George in the previous version; between the two it’s a draw. I rather wish that Rose and bass soloist William Gaunt (vastly superior to the vocally decrepit David Thomas in 1994), who has a nice, velvety texture and does well by his arias, had swapped roles. Soprano Sophie Bevan is technically assured and inflects well, but she has a rather whitish vocal timbre and regularly begins sustained notes with a pure tone and then pushes vibrato into them, a practice I don’t care for. Here Emma Kirkby in the 1994 outing easily outclasses her. Countertenor David Allsopp likewise is skilled, though his top notes are a bit on the hooty side; barring the likes of Andreas Scholl, I simply prefer a female alto in this part. While I’ve not generally been a fan of Michael Chance, he does quite well here back in 1994 and is preferable. Still, all of the foregoing quibbles to the voices in this new version are relatively minor. My one serious objection comes in with tenor soloist Mark le Brocq. His vocal production is unsteady, and his tonal sound is raw; he pushes unpleasantly, almost hectoring rather than singing. Martyn Hill in the 1994 recording is better, but likewise past his best and considerably less than ideal. Overall, Gilchrist and Gaunt clinch the definite superiority of this new version to that from 1994.

Although CDs can now accommodate more than 80 minutes per side, this set is laid out on three CDs rather than two; a bit inconveniently, a single CD case and a slimline two-disc case, rather than a single three-CD case, are housed with the booklet in an outer cardboard slipcase. The booklet is well laid out, and includes generous tracking points and timings, the libretto, artist bios, and photos. The recorded sound is first-rate. Fans of Cleobury need not hesitate in acquiring this as a memento of and tribute to a great artist whose passing is still mourned. Those seeking a top-level recording of the St. Matthew Passion, however, are better advised to turn elsewhere. With 86 listings currently on ArkivMusic (though that includes a goodly number of duplicates; the actual number is probably more like 50–60 different versions), I can’t claim to have heard anywhere near all of them, and reviews in the Fanfare Archive show how many top-flight recordings there are. Among the dozen or so I own, my favorites are Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s third recording from 2000 (Teldec) with Christoph Prégardien, Matthias Goerne, Christine Schäfer, Dorothea Röschmann, Bernarda Fink, Michael Schade, Oliver Widmir, and the Concentus Musicus for period instruments; and Georg Solti’s 1988 set (Decca) with Hans Peter Blochwitz, Olaf Bär, Kiri Te Kanawa, Anne Sofie von Otter, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Tom Krause, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus for modern ones. (I was blessed to attend the preceding spectacular live concert performances.) And I’m still praying that someone will produce a CD issue of the little-known but magnificent 1970 Nonesuch LP version superbly conducted by Hans Swarowsky, in which Kurt Equiluz (who also sings the tenor arias) and Marius Rintzler comprise the finest Evangelist-Jesus duo I’ve ever heard.


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